Hidden But Prevalent Racism in Georgia’s Special Education Programs

by Vins
Published: Updated:

On October 1, 2018, The New Yorker reported that the state of Georgia has been using disproportionate diagnoses of developmental and behavioral issues in black children to segregate them into the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support (GNETS). This was the first article to frame the story of GNETS schools as a racial issue. The article focuses on a boy named Seth Murrell in Seminole County during the fall of 2015. Seth originally attended his local public school, but Seth’s teachers decided to send him to a GNETS school due to his disruptive behavior in class. GNETS have a ten percent graduation rate and there have been reports of experimentation on and violence against the students in the schools.

GNETS schools are set up in school buildings that were formerly meant for black students during segregation. At best, they are holding centers for black students with disabilities who do not fit in the current educational infrastructure, despite the responsibility of public schools to provide space and resources for them. At worst, they are centers for physical and mental abuse, as detailed by Suzie Dunson, grandmother to a student at the Woodall Center. GNETS is a statewide institution, so families cannot escape the system by moving to a different district once their child has been identified as disabled.

GNETS schools are understaffed and the employees lack the knowledge and training to educate children with disabilities. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act prevents school systems from isolating children with disabilities from their neurotypical peers without legitimate cause. Parents that can afford lawyers are often successful in keeping their children out of GNETS by citing this legislation, while others are at the mercy of the state. The result is that a large number of black children are denied the opportunity to a sufficient education.

Corporate media have not ignored Georgia’s special education system, but it has been under-reported. There was no corporate media coverage found on this story. The only two articles we found appeared in the Atlantic Journal-Constitution and  examined case studies of unequal treatment in Georgia’s public education system. A 2011 report, titled “An Expensive Fght over a Boy with Autism” described the unimaginable school-life of a 10-year-old boy named Stefan who underwent verbal and physical abuse by his teachers.  The second article, published in 2015, recounted the grim story of a 13-year-old boy named Jonathan King who hung himself with his belt after weeks of being placed in a secluded room with no other students, “no windows, no food, no water and with no furniture.”

While these articles detail the hardships of two young boys, they do not discuss race.  Georgia’s special education system is a product and a continuation of racism. As Rachael Aviv reported in the New Yorker, Georgia is allowing schools to segregate based on educational ability with the knowledge that public school teachers are biased against black children and view them as “slow learners, defiant and disrespectful.” To report on GNETS schools without discussing race is to bury the lead.


Rachel Aviv, “Georgia’s Separate and Unequal Special-Education System” The New Yorker, October 1, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/10/01/georgias-separate-and-unequal-special-Education-system.

Student Researchers: Laney Ackley, Kate Drew, Anna Quattrini, Maia Sutton (University of Massachusetts Amherst)

Faculty Evaluator: Allison Butler (University of Massachusetts Amherst)